Holistic reconstruction of the Polynesian *ake ‘scent, hardwood and/or plant name’ group: Evolution of an enigmatic lexeme and indigenous botanical taxonomic group.

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2017-03-02
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Anderson-Fung, Puanani
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Anderson-Fung, Puanani
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This study reveals the fascinating history of the Polynesian word ake and its linguistic cognate a`e. It is a case study in Polynesian botanical taxonomy, as well as lexical and semantic change, with results that provide evidence for the pathways of human migration and interaction in ancient Polynesia. My original objective was to understand why indigenous scientists had given the Hawaiian name a`e to trees in Zanthoxylum (Rutaceae), Sapindus (Sapindaceae) and Xylosma (Salicaeae). I assumed that: the Hawaiian name a`e was given to these tree genera for discernible reasons, and not as a result of misidentification; indigenous scientists are as competent as modern taxonomists; indigenous names generally coincide with the modern post-Linnaean genus; and we humans tend to recognize the same groupings of like organisms in nature. When I discovered that the word ake also named Dodonaea (Sapindaceae) in several Polynesian island groups and Olearia (Asteraceae) in Aotearoa, my goal became much broader—to seek out new words from more destinations—to go boldly where ake had gone before (with apologies to Gene Roddenberry), and, ultimately, to determine whether and how these words might be related. To do this, I gathered ake/a`e words for fifteen Polynesian languages from dictionaries, combined them with other indigenous names for each plant genus with an ake/a`e name, and found additional ake/a`e words using comparative linguistic techniques. Semantic reconstruction was accomplished by integrating data regarding the morphology, characteristic properties, distribution, and use of species in the ake genera, the well-accepted pathways of Polynesian migration, and the effects of Polynesian colonization and cultural hegemony. Results indicate that Polynesian scientists recognized the same genera as modern botany, but named them according to either their morphology or cultural use. Once a plant genus was named ake or a`e, the name was applied consistently to the same genus, until the Polynesians travelled to a new land where the previously-named genus no longer occurred. At these points, the word ake was given to other things that were ‘scented’ or made of ‘very hard wood,’ reflecting the use of the ake trees in the Society Islands or Marquesas, respectively. In this way, the word was able to “live long and prosper” in very different biogeophysical environments in Polynesia. [Holistic: characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole.]
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